Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Book review: "Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble"

Dan Lyons was 52, with a wife and kids to support, and suddenly needed a job.

Lyons had recently been laid off as technology editor at Newsweek in 2012. He could have sought another job in journalism, but that field was imploding. Besides, he was intrigued with the world of high-tech start-ups. He'd interviewed many people at such companies as a journalist, and even though many of them didn't seem that bright, everyone was getting rich.

He wanted a piece of it.

So Lyons accepted a job with a 5-year-old Boston company called HubSpot as a "marketing fellow." Thus began Lyons' strange odyssey that he describes in his 2016 book, "Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble."  It's a book that, at turns, is funny, disturbing and sad.

Lyons had high hopes for his new job, but from day one -- literally -- things go awry. When he arrives for work, neither of the managers that hired him are there to welcome him and no one quite knows what to do with him. He is startled to discover that a 26-year-old who he first assumed was an administrative assistant is actually his new boss.

The average age of a Hubspot employee, Lyons learns, is 26, and he is twice that. It is a workplace designed for the young. The company stocks the cafeteria with snacks, beer and a "candy wall" -- all free. There's a foosball table, ping-pong table, indoor shuffleboard, and a set of musical instruments, "in case people want to have an impromptu jam session." Some employees work while sitting on large rubber balls; conference rooms have beanbag chairs.

Lyons struggles to fit it, but he never does. He's the "old guy" in the office and at any rate, age is only one of the things that set HubSpot apart. There is a forced perkiness in the work culture -- the "HubSpotty" way of doing things  and its own HubSpeak  When someone quits or is fired, it is called "graduation."

"HubSpotters talk about 'inspiring people,' 'being remarkable,' 'conquering fear,' and being 'rock stars' and 'superstars with super powers' whose mission is to "inspire people" and 'be leaders,'" Lyons writes. "They talk about engaging in delightion, which is a made-up word, invented by Dharmesh (a company co-founder), that means delighting our customers. They say all of these things without a hint of irony."

And: "They use the word awesome incessantly, usually to describe themselves or each other. That's awesome! You're awesome! No you're awesome for saying I'm awesome.
  
"They pepper their communication with exclamation points, often in clusters, like this!!! They are constantly sending around emails praising someone who is totally crushing it and doing something awesome and being a total team player!!! These emails are cc'd to everyone in the department. The protocol seems to be for every recipient to issue his or her won reply-to-all email joining in on the cheer, writing thing like 'You go,girl!!' and 'Go HubSpot, go!!!!' and 'Ashley for president!!!'"

To Lyons, it seems a lot like a cult.  His unease deepens whern he realizes that HubSpot -- for all its talk about "being remarkable" -- is in the unremarkable business of helping other companies send out spam email. Billions and billions of spam emails. Except they call "lovable marketing content."

A key question is whether HubSpot is a uniquely bizarre company, or whether it is representative of other start-up tech companies. There's mixed evidence in the book. Yes, there are some cases where HubSpot seems way outside the norm -- on Halloween, everyone dresses up in costume -- but in other areas, such as a preference for young, cheap employees, it seems to fit with others start-ups.

In some ways, Lyons' difficulty in fitting in with HubSpot is due less to the company being a start-up than the fact that it is marketing and sales. This is far from the journalism that Lyons was used to.

Lyons did, in some cases, contribute some of his work problems. When a top executive asks him to assess the company's blog, Lyons responds with a detailed email critical of the blog and, by implication, the people who run it. Guess what? The email is forwarded to the people who run the blog and they turn cold on Lyons.

(A good rule for any workplace: If you are going to criticize someone, don't put it in writing.)

There are larger issues that come to mind in reading "Disrupted": ageism in the workplace, the house-of-cards nature of the whole start-up world, and why we put so much of our personal information in the hands of such ditzy companies.

Still, what I enjoyed most about "Disrupted" is that it gives you an inside look at another workplace. Most of us, buried in our own jobs, have little idea how different the culture can be elsewhere.

Lyons puts you there,  as if you yourself were suddenly working at HubSpot. As Lyons went through this experience, I felt like I was there with him, feeling the confusion, the amusement, and the pain.

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Friday, January 6, 2017

Book review: "Dan Rooney - My 75 Years With the Pittsburgh Steelers and the NFL"

By the time the 1955 National Football League draft reached its ninth round, all the big college stars had been taken. But 23-year-old Dan Rooney, who was helping make draft selections for the Pittsburgh Steelers, saw potential in a skinny quarterback out of the University of Louisville named Johnny Unitas.

"We gotta get this guy now because we don't want him playing against us," Rooneysaid.

Following Rooney's advice, the Steelers drafted Unitas, who would become one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history. But he never played at all for the Steelers.

Steelers coach Walter Kiesling thought Unitas was "too dumb to play" in the NFL, Rooney recalls in his autobiography, "Dan Rooney - My 75 Years With the Pittsburgh Steelers and the NFL."

Kiesling never gave Unitas a chance in training camp and cut him before the season started. A year later, Unitas signed with the Baltimore Colts and began a stellar career in which he was named the NFL's Most Valuable Player four times.

This is one of many anecdotes Rooney tells in this enjoyable book. While not perfect, the book has enough going for it to qualify as a must-read for hardcore Steeler fans and a good choice for anyone with a interest in the history of the NFL or the City of Pittsburgh.

Rooney has a unique position in the NFL. He has spent virtually his entirely life immersed in professional football. His father, Art Rooney, was the original owner of the Steelers, and Dan Rooney started early working with and helping manage the team. Dan became president of the team in 1975 and took over the organization after his father died in 1988.

"Football is in my blood," he said.

Rooney describes his early years growing up in Pittsburgh, becoming a high school football star  while simultaneously working in the Steelers organization. At that time, the National Football League was a minor sport that struggled to attract players, let alone fans. During World War II, Rooney recalls, there were so few available men to play that the Steelers temporarily merged with the St. Louis Cardinals, becoming the unfortunately named "Card-Pitts."

Professional football grew in fits and spurts, but the Steelers were rarely successful on the field. One of the big problems was that his father simply hired his friends as coaches. Another problem, Dan Rooney says, is that his father was more of a baseball fan than a football fan. Yes, the owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers preferred to watch baseball.


The book is filled with fond, warm memories. Rooney doesn't dwell on the negative, and sometimes glosses over issues when you wish he would tell you more.  He tells stories about his family, crashing his private plane, the NFL's compromise selection of Pete Rozelle as commissioner, the merger with AFL and personal clashes with Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis.

He wanders occasionally off track to tell us the biographies of players, which we could get anywhere. The book is best when he tells his personal story.  The book has two co-authors, Andrew E. Masich and David F. Halaas, so it's hard to say how much of the writing was actually done by Rooney.

If you like stories on old-time football, here are two other books you might enjoy: "That First Season" by John Eisenberg, the story of Vince Lombardi's first year coaching the Green Bay Packers, and "Instant Replay,", Jerry Kramer's diary of the Packers 1967 championship season.
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Friday, December 16, 2016

Dear Los Angeles Metro: The Blue Line is ill

(I sent this to Los Angeles Metro on Dec. 16, 2016)

Dear Metro:

I've been riding the Blue Line for some 18 years, so I know its moods pretty well. And it's become quite apparent in the last few months that the Blue Line is just not itself.

The Blue Line has reliably delivered me from Wardlow Station to 7th Street/Metro Station -- and back again --  thousands of times. But lately it has developed a bad case of the "waits."

Nearly every day now, riders on the Blue Line experience repeated stops and delays -- maybe two minutes, maybe five minutes, even 10 minutes or more.

To determine just how sick the Blue is, I took its temperature. For 10 days I timed every ride I made on the Blue Line (20 rides in all). This is a ride that should take 42 minutes. That's not my opinion; that's what Metro's own timetable says. And for 18 years, the Blue Line has had little trouble meeting that time.

Today, however, something is clearly wrong. Out of all the rides I timed, the Blue Line was able to complete the Wardlow-Metro Center run (either way) in 42 minutes only 35% of the time.

Here's the complete record:


  • Nov. 28, a.m.: 44 minutes, 2 minutes over
  • Nov. 28, p.m.: 49 minutes, 7 minutes over 
  • Nov 29, a.m.:  53 minutes, 11 minutes over
  • Nov. 29, p.m.: 53 minutes, 11 minutes over
  • Nov. 30, a.m.: 42 minutes, On Time
  • Nov. 30, p.m., 48 minutes, 6 minutes over
  • Dec 1, a.m.: 48 minutes, 6 minutes over,
  • Dec. 1, p.m.: 44 minutes, 2 minutes over
  • Dec 2, a.m.: 41 minutes, 1 minute under
  • Dec. 2, p.m. 42 minutes,  On Time
  • Dec 5, a.m.: 49 minutes, 7 minutes over
  • Dec. 5, p.m. 42 minutes,  On Time
  • Dec 6. a.m.: 42 minutes, On Time
  • Dec. 6, p.m.: 42 minutes,  On Time
  • Dec 7, a.m.:  51 minutes, 9 minutes over,
  • Dec. 7, a.m.: 46 minutes, 4 minutes over
  • Dec. 12, a.m.: 51 minutes, 9 minutes over
  • Dec. 12: p.m.: 40 minutes, 2 minutes under
  • Dec 13, a.m.: 49 minutes, 7 minutes over
  • Dec. 13, p.m. 43 minutes, 1 minute over
(Note: I did not ride the train on Dec. 8 or 9)

Anyone -- or any train line -- can have a bad day, and Blue Line passengers understand that. But what's alarming here is that these delays happen virtually every day. Would you fly an airline that has just a 35% on-time record?  Would you buy milk if it was sour 65% of the time?

This is not just a matter of annoyance. This is a breach of contract. Metro is not giving riders what they are paying for. Metro is exposing itself to a class action lawsuit.

The good news is that the record shows that Metro can do this right. In fact, two of the rides in my study came in under 42 minutes. 

Is Metro going to fix this? Or will Metro admit that it can't and just change its timetables?

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Book review: "All Brave Sailors" by J. Revell Carr

In the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, a thousand miles from land, two men in a lifeboat consider their fate. It has been three weeks since their ship sunk. They are dying of thirst, starvation and exposure to the unrelenting sun.

So they decide to end their lives.

Bob Tapscott and Roy Widdicombe climb into the water, intending to end their misery by floating away and disappearing beneath the waves. But the cool water seems to change their mood and they climb back into the boat. After a short wait, they decide again that it is time to die. They slip into the water and Tapscott starts to float away. But Widdicombe clings to the boat's lifeline.

Angry, Tapscott returns to the boat. He and Widdicombe argue, then both climb back into the boat. They will not kill themselves, at least not today. Soon they notice something that had an escaped their attention before. Their compass is filled with a liquid that allows the device to spin freely. It's alcohol.

Carefully, they open the compass -- perhaps their most important possession at this moment -- and empty out the few ounces of alcohol it contains. They split it among themselves and drink it. Soon they are so drunk they forget they're on the brink of death.

This is just one scene in the true survival story that lies at the heart of "All Brave Sailors," by J. Revell Carr. I've read many of the best survival stories -- "Unbroken," "The Long Walk," and accounts of Ernest Shackleton's Antarctic ordeal -- and the story told in this book is equally as amazing as any of them.

The trouble is, the tale of how men from the Anglo-Saxon freighter survived an attack by a Nazi merchant raider in 1940 is only part of "All Brave Sailors."  Carr tries to fit a lot into this book -- possibly too much -- as he covers some 50 years of events around the globe.

Many of the pieces are interesting, but the desperate ordeal of the British sailors is the only part that is truly gripping.  And Carr struggles to fit everything in a form that flows smoothly.

"All Brave Sailors" is truly about three men -- Tapscott, Widdicombe and Hellmuth Vonk Ruckteschell, the commander of the German "commerce raider" that ruthlessly destroyed the Anglo-Saxon on Aug. 21, 1940. Carr traces the lives of these three men before and after their fates intersected on that day.

Carr fumbles around at the beginning of the book trying to fit the disparate elements in. The first problem is right on the cover, which suggests that "All Brave Sailors" is only about the events in the lifeboat. This is misleading -- nearly half of the book is about the life of Ruckteschell.

The cover of the book also gives away too much, telling us how long the sailors were stranded on the ocean. Even worse, the very first thing that you see as you start the book is an annotated map that gives away multiple key points in the story. Talk about spoilers.

At the outset, the book hops strangely, starting with a hurried description of the attack on the Anglo-Saxon, then jumps backward to start the biography of Ruckteschell. In the third chapter, Carr gives us biographies of key sailors on the Anglo-Saxon, but we have no context for them. We don't know how each sailor is important to the story. It would be better to insert these as the characters emerge in the narrative.

Here's what I suggest: Avoid looking at the map until late in the book. Skip the first part of the book and start with chapter 5. It's not perfect -- you might want to skip back to fill in a few details -- but it gets you into the meat of the story with less confusion.

From there, the book gets much better. Carr has done tremendous research and he fills in details beautifully. He describes the way the Widder, the German commerce raider, cleverly disguised its guns so as to appear as an ordinary merchant ship. During the lifeboat section, we can really feel the misery of the sailors as they slide from hopes of rescue to desperation and, for some, death.

The book has some surprising moments but I don't want to spoil things by giving them away here.

In the end, I think Carr is too soft on Ruckteschell, the German commander.  This is a man who was essentially a terrorist, sneaking up on unarmed ships, attacking with multiple guns and torpedoes, and sending many defenseless men to their deaths. Carr catalogs the commander's war crimes carefully, but he doesn't seem to have the hatred for the German that I developed as I read it.

If you're interested in the history of German commerce raiders you might be interested in "The Wolf" by Richard Guilliott.

If you like survival stories of men lost at seas, consider "Adrift" by Steven Callahan, and "In the Heart of the Sea" by Nathaniel Philbrick.

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Microsoft Office 365 could delete everything on your phone

Why would ANYONE agree to this?

My company recently began using Microsoft's Office 365 for accessing work email on a cell phone. As I was setting it up on my phone, I got this message:

"Outlook.office365.com requires that you allow it to remotely control some security features of your Android device."

Hmmm, I thought, what does that mean?  Reading on, it said that if I activated this software, I would be allowing Office 365 to do various things, including, "Erase all data."

Um, what?

If installed, Office 365 could, if it wanted, "Erase the phone's data without warning by performing a factory data reset."

So at time, everything on your phone -- pictures, contacts, texts, apps, e-books -- could be completely deleted without any control by you.

Again: Why would ANYONE agree to this?

I certainly didn't.

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Sunday, November 20, 2016

What if electoral votes were proportional to state population?

One of the oddities of the electoral college system in electing the U.S. president is that some voters' ballots count for more than others. This is because electoral votes are not proportional to the states' populations.

Yes, big states do get more electoral votes, but not as many as they would if the votes were allocated proportionally. For instance, California gets 55 electoral votes, while Wyoming, the smallest state, gets 3. This mean California gets 18 times more electoral votes than Wyoming. But California actually has 67 times the population of Wyoming.

Under the electoral college, voters in small states get disproportionate sway. A vote cast in a small state can count for more than three times as much as one cast in large state.

What would happen if electoral votes were allocated proportional to state population? I took Census population numbers for all the states, created a "proportional" electoral vote division and applied them to the results for the 2016 election.

All the small states in this experiment got 1 vote. California, the largest state, got the most, 67. Some other states got more, others fewer. (You can see the breakdown below.) Because of the way this calculation was done, I ended up with a total of 548 electoral votes, slightly more than the real 538.

The results? Well ... not much difference. Under my scenario, Donald Trump would have received 292 votes to Hillary Clinton's 239, with Michigan still undecided as I write this.  The actual result was 290 for Trump versus 232 for Clinton (again, not counting Michigan).

Yes, I'm surprised this didn't change things much. Still, in a different election, proportional electoral vote allocation could change the result, especially if one candidate gets most large states while another get mostly small ones.

State Actual electoral votes Proportional votes Winner
Alabama 9 8 Trump
Alaska 3 1 Trump
Arizona 11 12 Trump
Arkansas 6 5 Trump
California 55 67 Clinton
Colorado 9 9 Clinton
Connecticut 7 6 Clinton
Delaware 3 2 Clinton
District of Columbia 3 1 Clinton
Florida 29 35 Trump
Georgia 16 17 Trump
Hawaii 4 2 Clinton
Idaho 4 3 Trump
Illinois 20 22 Clinton
Indiana 11 11 Trump
Iowa 6 5 Trump
Kansas 6 5 Trump
Kentucky 8 8 Trump
Louisiana 8 8 Trump
Maine 4 2 Clinton
Maryland 10 10 Clinton
Massachusetts 11 12 Clinton
Michigan 16 17
Minnesota 10 9 Clinton
Mississippi 6 5 Trump
Missouri 10 10 Trump
Montana 3 2 Trump
Nebraska 5 3 Trump
Nevada 6 5 Clinton
New Hampshire 4 2 Clinton
New Jersey 14 15 Clinton
New Mexico 5 4 Clinton
New York 29 34 Clinton
North Carolina 15 17 Trump
North Dakota 3 1 Trump
Ohio 18 20 Trump
Oklahoma 7 7 Trump
Oregon 7 7 Clinton
Pennsylvania 20 22 Trump
Rhode Island 4 2 Clinton
South Carolina 9 8 Trump
South Dakota 3 1 Trump
Tennessee 11 11 Trump
Texas 38 47 Trump
Utah 6 5 Trump
Vermont 3 1 Clinton
Virginia 13 14 Clinton
Washington 12 12 Clinton
West Virginia 5 3 Trump
Wisconsin 10 10 Trump
Wyoming 3 1 Trump

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Ode to a Nike bag

In 1998, I signed up for a biking and hiking trip through China with my then-girlfriend Barb (now my wife). It was to be my first true overseas trip – I don't think going to Bermuda counts –  and certainly my most exotic vacation.

For nearly six months, I prepared for the trip, learning to speak some Mandarin, reading books about China and researching the places we would visit. But barely 24 hours after we arrived, near-disaster struck: The zipper on my primary piece of luggage broke.
A final look at my bag before heading to the trashcan

Now you may not consider a broken zipper a near-disaster, but at the time I had no idea what to do. The zipper couldn't be fixed and I certainly couldn't use the bag. At home, I would run to Target and just buy a new one. But we were in a foreign country, with no car, and I had no idea how I was going to carry all my belongings around for the next two weeks.

Something needed to be done fast because our small tour group was due to get on a train soon. As an interim measure, one of our guides retrieved a duffel bag from storage that Barb had brought (the bag had been holding camping gear we would be using later in the trip). I could use that for now. But I still had to find another bag.

After our train trip, we spent a night in the city of Xian and then cycled through the countryside the next day, stopping for the night in a small city. Exploring the town that evening, Barb and I found a store selling bags.

These weren't expensive luggage pieces, but something more like workout-gear bags. We looked around and I finally selected a simple black-and-teal bag with "Nike" on the side. I liked it because it was large. It cost me about $5. I figured it would be good enough to get my stuff home.

It did indeed get my stuff home –  and then some. Over the years, I used the bag frequently to carry things like books, clothes and groceries. It worked well for hauling almost anything.

Eventually, the zipper broke, but I kept using the bag. A few small holes appeared but I still kept using it. Finally this year, with the number and size of the holes growing, the end came for my bag. With a touch of wistfulness, I dropped it in a garbage can.

If you say Chinese-made products don't last, I will tell you the story of the bag that did 18 years of hard work. Not bad for $5.

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